Mar 1, 2017

Horror Revisited

Near Dark (1987)

by Inci German

"Park your carcass!"

In memory of Bill Paxton


This is awful. I was trying to find a way to weasel out of writing my review on Freddy Krueger (that I have announced I would write next) and was considering alternatives. Not being able to decide, I mentally went back and forth between “An American Werewolf in London” and “Near Dark” for about a month. And now this… I wish it wasn’t this sad sad cause that forced me to come to a decision and Bill Paxton hadn't died. He was one of the greatests to me.

Contains spoilers

Watching or re-watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) is worth your time for many reasons: beautiful, poetic images, the very cool soundtrack, the wicked interplay of soundtrack and plot, amazing cinematography and a marvelous cast. Being probably the sole example of the cross-genre “vampire horror-western-road movie-family tale”, this film inspires nothing but awe in me. Now it’s not easy creating such an outstanding picture if you’re working in such an eccentric genre and with a plot that could at best be described as so-so, but Bigelow surely nails it!

Let’s start with the weakest link, the storyline, which is basically “boy meets girl; girl turns him into vampire and takes him along; boy can’t adjust to his new life and is saved; boy kills adversaries and saves girl also”. Boy is Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), girl is Mae (Jenny Wright) and her tribe consists of Homer (Joshua John Miller), Severen (Bill Paxton), Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) and their charismatic leader Jesse (Lance Henriksen).
After a night spent together, Mae bites Caleb, turning him into a vampire and later collects him with her pack. Caleb doesn’t fit in, he loves Mae but he hates being a vampire and the vampires don’t like him. The whole movie basically revolves around Caleb and the vampires somewhat trying to make it work, but also somewhat not and disliking each other. The pack kind of tries to teach him how to be a vampire but enjoys torturing him along the way and Caleb firmly believes he’ll get out of there but plays along for the moment being. So they travel together, looking for food, until Caleb’s father (Tim Thomerson), who is a veterinarian, finds and saves his son by giving him a blood transfusion.
Traditionally there have been many attempts to cure the vampiric condition such as magical means to make you regain your soul or the more brutal method of killing the head vampire, but the scientific approach is quite seldom and among all those gothic, dark concepts that’s sort of refreshing. What’s more logical than a blood transfusion for a vampire? This conclusion is brilliantly genius, really.

I’m not quite sure about the symbolic level of Near Dark though. On one hand you have the dirty, trampy vampires against Caleb who comes from a “good” family, leaving a kind of didactic aftertaste of “watch out kids who you hang out with”. On another level there’s the relationship between Mae and Caleb; Mae asserting a situation Caleb hasn’t agreed to. She then is forced to face the consequences of her doing and to “feed” Caleb blood through her wrist, since he declines hunting and killing and finally she needs Caleb’s help to get her out of the mess she’s in. Is that a metaphor of the woman-condition? I'm not sure I like this kind of "classical dramatic arc" kind of story either way, but as I mentioned above, in this case the plot comes second to me.

The images. There are images in this movie that stuck inside my brain, inside my eyes. Caleb walking on an endless field, trying to reach home and steaming in the sun. A van with darkened windows travelling the Midwest. Mae offering Caleb an innocent cowboy as a present for his first kill. The vampire clan literally drinking up a waitress, filling their cups with her flowing blood. The bar scene...

The bar scene. I’ve saved the best for last. It's justly considered one of the scariest scenes in movie history and re-watching Near Dark, my jaw dropped in the truest sense of the word. It wasn’t the freaky choice of music, not the high amount of gore, not the cool costumes – it was Bill Paxton’s performance as Severen. A sweaty, crazy, maniacally laughing, psychopath, unpredictable, dangerous, drooling Severen mocking, playing with his prey before slaying them, tearing them apart. Despite all of its merits, Near Dark wouldn’t be nearly as dark without Bill Paxton. I can safely say I’ve seen many impersonations of evil but as Severen, Paxton takes the cake. I wonder why he hasn't played more parts of crazy maniacs. Still, among all the movies he has starred in, this one is best for me because as Severen, he finally steps forward and shines. Wish we'd had more of that.

Fun fact: Lance Henriksen tells in "Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments" that during shooting Near Dark, Paxton wandered outside the set with his messed up make-up, half his face ripped apart and told a guy walking out of the train station "Hey man, there's been an accident." Poor guy from the train, must have been horrified!


  1. I haven't thought about "Near Dark" in a long time. I remember when it came out in 1987 and appeared on the shelves of Video People, my local video store. I was about 11, and there was no way that I would get permission to see it; I had to settle with what the adults were saying about the film: "it's a vampire movie where the word vampire is never said", "it's a fresh take on the vampire story," etc. The adults I looked up to who had a taste for horror were impressed with it.

    Many years went by, and I finally got a chance to see it at some point in college, I think. I remember thinking, "meh", and getting on with things. Reading the first few paragraphs of this article, I decided to give it a rewatch before reading the rest: partly because I wanted to see if my initial impression still held, but mostly because I was shocked to hear that Bill Paxton had passed, and it felt like a good way to honor his work.

    "Near Dark" is definitely a different take on vampires: horrible monsters as opposed to lonely souls. I tend to think of this subject as the Pre-Interview vampires and Post-Interview. "Interview with a Vampire", published in 1976, as really a changing point for the vampire myth: they stopped being monsters and turned into gothic anti-heros, with brooding romance. The myth stopped appealing to the horror of things that stalk the night, and began to reflect our inner darkness and estrangement. "Near Dark" has the characters of Mae, Homer, and Caleb who are supposed to be more sympathetic, but the over all tone of the film goes far into horror, and we see vampires as monsters with a serious edge of punk rock in there. Maybe that's the heart of this film: vampires as poor and on the edge of society, but powerfully and able to play out our anger/death/power fantasies. Maybe they're more sympathetic than I thought, but from a punk rock fantasy. That's an interesting idea.

    Over all, I think this film was at its best when watched in 1987; I bet it was totally mind blowing to see this in the theater within its time context. It hasn't aged as well as say "Bladerunner" or "Alien", but it's not the worst example of films ageing poorly. Still, I think that it's lost some of its effect. But, because we're seeing a very different take on vampires, I would recommend it. It's interesting to compare "Near Dark" with "Lost Boys" which both came out in the same year: they both take the "vampire punks" route, but come to very different places. I would agree that "Near Dark" stays relevant in the vampire canon and is worth the time.

  2. You make me really curious about Video People :) That place must have been great!

    I don't think I agree with the Pre/Post-Interview thing, though. If you take Nosferatu, Dracula, written by Stoker or played by Lagusi, it was always a gothic anti-hero and not really a monster. I thought a lot about this; when did certain images of vampires started to form? I'm no expert but my impression is that the Vampire has always been upper class and a monster. It's not real richness, bur more a husk, an image of upper class (huge settings, castles, fancy clothing but nothing really to fill it with. Dracula's lifestyle isn't exactly pompuos after all.) Maybe that's due to the lack of his soul, idk.
    And the real innovation was to present them as penniless tramps as in the last two movies I reviewed here. I'll see if I can find more. I personally prefer my vampires dirty!
    A more recent movie that portrays vampires as animal-monsters is "30 Days of Night", I highly recommend that one!

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